The holiday island of CRETE, or KRITI, has two things that distinguish it from most other Greek islands - it's magnificent mountains and a remarkably rich culture and history.
Crete is the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean, with a population mainly confined to the north coast by the huge mountain ranges that make up the backbone of this long, slender island.
Much of the eastern area of Crete is now lost to package tourism - a nightmare of neon and happy hours bars. The west side of the island, however, has the magnificent mountains, the more rugged coastline and the less crowded beaches.
But whichever part of Crete you choose for a holiday there is sure to be a good range of quality Crete hotels to choose from as this is one of the most popular of the Greek holiday islands.
The long, cloud-free summers and the pleasantly warm, mild winters ensure that Crete holidays attract visitors throughout the year. Those heading inland will find monumental mountains, an abundant archaeological heritage, spirited social history and some spine-tingling scenery.
Those looking for a Greek beach holiday will also find plenty to choose from with uxury hotels in Crete a firm favourite. The beaches of Crete vary from quiet, deserted coves with a single beach cantina to long swathes of golden sand packed with sunbeds and every kind of tourist facility.
Western Crete is also a very popular area to purchase property and there are many who hunt down for vacation homes during their summer holiday stay on the island.
In short, Crete holidays have just about everything for everyone, while the locals have a well justified reputation for friendliness to foreigners.
Beaches in western Crete are strung like washing along the north and south coasts with a mighty mountain range between. The mountains are so dominant that, as rain and storms batter the north, the south can enjoy peaceful skies and bright sunshine.
The northern beaches are the more popular, served by a major highway that runs the whole length of Crete. Some beaches favour the holiday package industry, especially those to the west of Chania, where all-inclusive holiday hotels jostle with neon-lit tavernas, bars and fast food outlets for holidaymakers on cheap holidays to Crete.
But most resorts tend to be small and comfortable with a low key air that will suit most holidaymakers. The beaches on the far west coast are the most remote and the most beautiful. Empty for much of the day they are also a magnet for coach trippers and they can get busy from noon onwards.
Most tourist development along the north coast of western Crete is mercifully free of the indiscriminate sprawl of neon sleaze that greets you at the eastern end of the island. Beaches west of Chania have suffered a little in this respect, with an unedifying rash of tourist tackiness along the coast road from Agia Marina to Maleme.
But the coastline between Chania and Rethymnon has escaped relatively unscathed. The shoreline is punctuated by the two cities of Rethymnon and Chania and the beaches, especially those west of Chania have come the attention of the concrete mixer, especially since the opening of the main coastal highway that now runs the virtual length of the island.
The approaches to Crete's third largest city of RETHYMNO or RETHYMNON, about 60km from Chania, are not particularly attractive. There is a derelict and scruffy air to the urban sprawl of concrete that greets you when you swing off the main highway.
But what a difference awaits in the heart of Rethymnon where charming Venetian buildings sit alongside the slender minarets of Turkish mosques. The city centre enjoys an almost aristocratic air with its arched doorways, crumbling balconies and faded facades.
The most picturesque part of Rethymnon is the old Venetian harbour where scores of romantic, if pricey, tavernas tables line the quay and a Venetian lighthouse stands sentinel at the end of the long harbour wall. Almost every street has an abundance of cafes and restaurants intermingled with interesting craft and antique shops.
The Rethymnon beach area is to the east of the harbour, a large flat triangle of hard packed sand backed by hotels, souvenir shops and cafes, The palm-fringed sands are spacious, the water generally calm and shallow and there are watersports on offer. Beyond that are 20km of sand and pebble to explore.
Apart from the Fortezza (see attractions) other notable Rethymnon city sites include the Arimondi fountain built in 1623, and the slender Nerantzes Djani minaret attached to a former Venetian church and visible from almost anywhere in the city.
Nightlife in Rethymnon is fairly lively, mostly bars and discos open until the early hours. There are plenty of waterfront tavernas for a quiet, romantic meal. By day there are 'pirate ship' cruises to see dolphins, caves and offshore islets.
Rethymnon Carnival has three weeks of parades, fancy dress balls and theatre in the run-up to Lent. The Renaissance Festival is in July/August with music and drama and the Wine Festival, in the public gardens in July, has music, dancing and barrels of local wine.
The Fortezza is the jewel in Rethymnon's crown. It claims to be the largest fort ever built by the Venetians and it is certainly an impressive sight. Building began in 1573 on the ruins of a Byzantine fortress built to protect the city from repeated raids by pirates and Turks.
On completion, the whole Rethymnon population could be contained within the Fortezza's walls where there was a barracks and a hospital. Extensive reclamation work in under way.
At the main entrance is a good archaeology museum where exhibits include helmets, bronze axes and an extensive coin collection. There are also many finds from local Minoan tombs on display.
PANORMO, or PANORMOS, is an extremely attractive village on the north coast of Crete about 21km east of Rethymno. Panormo manages to blend local Cretan character with low-key tourism and has a permanent population of 400. Visitor accommodation is largely self-catering although a large, low-rise hotel lies a little to the west of the village and uses one of the three beaches.
The beaches are all firm sand - a small harbour beach; the popular 'middle beach' with a taverna; and the hotel beach to the west. All three are protected by stone breakwaters making swimming safe even when there's a strong northerly wind.
All three beaches are gently sloping and are ideal for children. There's a dive centre on the western beach and some low key watersports. If you prefer more seclusion head west past the Marine Grecotel for a sprinkling of pebble coves.
A dozen or so tavernas, a few pleasant bars, two decent mini-markets, a bakery, newsagents and a welcome absence of tacky souvenir shops, makes for an extremely pleasant small resort with lots of character.
here's regular bus services to Rethymno and Iraklion and 'little road train' from Panormos offers a choice of two morning trips way way inland into the Cretan countryside.
Many thanks to Bob Cartwright for this Panormo beach report
Three rivers run into the sea at GEORGIOUPOLIS, about 21km west of Rethymnon and 39km east of Chania, where flat sand stretches east from the village for almost 7km.
The main river is salty and its mouth creates a small harbour where derelict boat hulks lie rusting. A second smaller river cuts through the middle of the long sandy beach and a third reaches the sea at a small cove to the west.
Marshy flats lie behind the sands, an ideal habitat for birds, turtles and for mosquitoes, for which the village once had an unhealthy reputation. Some hotels and apartment owners boast of anti-mosquito netting, and wise visitors will take extra precautions.
The place has grown quickly from a small fishing village to a moderate sized tourist resort, popular with several British package firms and now offering more than 3,500 beds.
Its recent rise in popularity has its downside. Blaring adverts are plastered over shops, cheap tourist knick-knacks are on sale everywhere and car parks are usually full. That said, the resort is pleasant enough, with welcome shade from the massive eucalyptus trees and high curtains of bamboo that sprout up at every turn.
The flat beach is exposed to the northern winds and is a bleak prospect when the weather is poor. But the sand is good and fine, if flat and featureless as it snakes off into the distance.
The best parts of the beach are at the western end where a long stone walkway reaches out to a tiny chapel perched on the rocks. Small hotels and beach complexes have grown up behind the sands where they meet the busy main highway, the latter making this a good place for those who wish to explore the island.
The growing resort of ALMYRIDA is just around the headland from its neighbour, the slightly more popular Kalives. The sandy beach curves around in a wide crescent from a small breakwater which serves as a simple harbour, recently rebuilt.
Almyrida was a very quiet and attractive seaside village with a string of tavernas sitting behind the pleasant sandy beach. It is still an attractive spot but the growing number of apartments in recent years, and now a large hotel, threaten to end the resort's tranquillity.
Almyrida remains a pleasant family beach resort, within striking distance of Chania should you want a more lively day out. The village has a bakery, minimarket and a car rental firm as well as a string of tavernas along the shoreline at the western end.
Fine, golden sand, shelves gently at both ends but is stony underfoot in the middle. There is a line of tamarisks behind to provide natural shade.
There are several coves on the cliff path to Kalives and there are good walks in the area with spectacular views over the bay of Souda.
Inland from Almyrida lie the hill villages of KOKKINO KHORIO and PLAKA that are notable, both for their roles in the filming of the movie Zorba the Greek, and for some fine tavernas set in shady tree-lined squares.
To describe KALIVES or KALYVES as down-at-heel would be to do it an injustice, yet it does have the air of a one-street backwater. The scruffy main street runs parallel to the coast and is lined with crumbling, unkempt buildings flanked by more modern apartments.
Kalives beach itself is very fine. It sweeps around the medium-sized bay with a small harbour at one end and the horribly twee Kalives Beach Hotel, and a kitsch fake windmill, dominating the other.
The Kalives sands are deep and soft and backed by trees and benches along a narrow beach road itself lined with, but excellent tavernas and shops.
The sand at Kalives falls quite steeply into the sea and currents can be strong so children must be watched, although this can still be considered a good family beach.
Kalives is a working - not just a tourist - village, so there is a good complement of shops with a bakery, ironmongers and so on - even a barrel maker. Streets are lined with small cafes and there is a pleasant square near the village church.
Just outside Kalives, to the west with signs on the main road, is the remarkable Koumos or Stone House, a private home where buildings have been covered in small stones and the whole place turned into a Gaudi-style complex. Well worth a visit.
The large cauliflower peninsula north-east of Chania known at AKTORI or AKROTIRI is a strange mixture of scruffy suburbia, bare wilderness and mushrooming luxury resorts.
The scruffy bits lead to the main regional airport and nearby military base while the resorts are capitaliseg on fine sandy beaches at KALATHAS and STAVROS. Both of these now surrounded by apartments and villas and are popular with the locals.
Stavros sits at the northern tip of Akrotiri with two sandy beaches beneath a large rock outcrop. This is where many scenes were shot for the movie 'Zorba the Greek'.
The wilder bits inland include the fortified 1530 monastery of Gouvernetou, one of the oldest in Crete, on a remote plateau. It sits above the 17th century monastery of Agia Triada, Byzantine on the outside and heavily decorative Greek on the inside.
Nearby is a hermit cave called Arkoudiotissa, after a huge bear-shaped stalagmite to be found inside, and beyond that the cave of the hermit St John approached down 150 steps carved into the rock.
Noted for its profusion of wild flowers there are any number of excursions on Akrotiri for amateur botanists.
The capital of Crete until 1971 Chania, about 60km from Rethymnon, is still the island's most charming city and for many its best-loved. Away from the harbour area it is much like any other, a modern sprawl of urban concrete built around the two harbours. But the centre is a wonderful mix of Turkish and Venetian architecture that, for the most part, miraculously survived the bombers of World War II.
Parking can be a real problem in the traffic choked streets away from the traffic free shoreline so a taxi to the indoor market is the best bet. Laid out like a crucifix, the Agora market, built in 1911, is a delight, serving both tourists and locals. Here you will find everything from buckets of sliced pig heads to gift wrapped sachets of herbs, from delicate mountain tea to Superman comics.
Through the east door and down some steps is the busy outdoor leather market crammed into the narrow street of Odros Skridlof and further on the splendid archaeological museum, housed in the old Venetian church of San Francesco, with a good display of Minoan pottery and artifacts.
North of the museum lies the heart of Chania - the two Venetian ports. The eastern harbour has Chania's most photographed buildings, the slender Venetian lighthouse at the end of the harbour wall and the squat Mosque of the Janissaries built in 1625 with strange egg-shaped domes and spider leg arches and which has been variously a mosque, a tourist centre and an exhibition hall.
Behind the mosque lies the Kastelli quarter where a complex of Minoan buildings was unearthed only to be buried again by the Luftwaffe. There are seven recently restored vaulted shipyards of the Venetian Arsenal originally built around 1600 - there were once 17 of them.
The rectangular west harbour is generously lined with tavernas and cafes beneath the faded and crumbling facades of Venetian houses and tipped with a solid, unattractive fortress of the Firkas Tower.
Chania is not a great city for beaches although the main beach strip for western Crete starts at Agia Marina just a few kilometres west. There is a beach at the western end of the Venetian walls called NEA CHORA, sandy and shallow water suitable for children but it can get stormy when the meltemi wind blows. It's popular with the locals and there are cafes and tavernas and plenty of sunbeds. Less popular is a beach to the east of the city which is noted for considerable water pollution - best to stay away.
Agioi Apostoloi is the first beach heading west out of Chania - actually three good sandy beaches, very popular with the locals especially at weekends, it being so close to Chania.
Agioi Apostoloi us 4-5km from Chania and named after the small chapel that sits at the head of the peninsula which contains three linked bays of fine golden sand with clear, shallow water making it a great beach for families with children.
The biggest beach is Chrissi Akti or Golden Beach so called for pretty obvious reasons given the soft , golden sand. Here you will find ranks of sunbeds, beach tavernas and cafes, music bars and water sports as well as a small, shady natural park of pines, palms, oleander and eucalyptus. Trees stand the back of the beach and on the headland and the area has a preservation order slapped on it.
The other two beaches are just a stroll away and, although smaller, they are just as fine and a little quieter. There is a frequent bus service to the beach from the central market in Hania and, being so close to the city the beaches can get pretty crowded at weekends.
The city of Chania is one of the biggest on the island and the population is served by a long run of sand and shingle beaches to the west, the first of which is the popular AGIA MARINA.
The cement mixer has been at work here with some gusto and the result is a long coastal ribbon of ugly low-rise resort development backing the long stretches of flat sand. Tavernas and bars tangle with gift shops and supermarkets to tout for the passing tourist trade
Agia Marina lies on the main coast road west out of Chania. That, coupled with this being one of the most popular holiday resorts along this stretch makes this one of the busiest main roads on the island and sometimes impossible to cross given the daily weight of traffic.
The beach is wide, flat and exposed, with all the usual facilities you would expect at a heavyweight resort with sunbeds and watersports galore.
Out at sea is the islet of Agi Theodori, now a nature reserve for the rare kri-kri Cretan mountain goat. Legend has it that the island was once a whale that tried to swallow Crete but was turned to stone in the attempt.
The busy centre is thick with restaurants for every taste and tasteless gift shops are aimed at souvenir hunters. At dusk an array of nightspots, bars and clubs open, and if you like it even livelier you can head for neighbouring Platanias.
Slightly larger than neighbouring Agia Marina, the resort of PLATANIAS has done some good trade with neon salesmen. The actual village of Platanias perches quietly up on the hillside, but most visitors stay in the coastal beach strip that fans out below along a busy main road.
A long sweep of tavernas, rental outfits and souvenir shops sells indifferent food, gaudy pottery and cheap leather goods. There are plenty of sunbeds and watersports and you are never far from a taverna or snack bar at Platanias, most of which advertise wide-screen TVs and karaoke nights.
Dirt tracks from the busy Platanias main road lead down to the long sandy beach, flat and featureless and backed by low dunes in the few places where the holiday apartments have not yet encroached. There are plenty of sunbeds and watersports to be found.
The Blue Flag beach section is near the main Platanias village. Wander to the west and the sand is interspersed with shingle and pebble but you will need to walk about 4km before the Platanias beach ends so you can find quiet spots if you prefer them.
The Platanias tourist train is popular, especially for those heading to the nearby Limnoupoli water park. Further west the beaches are more difficult to get access to, being behind fields and large bamboo hedges, but they are worth the effort of seeking out if you prefer to escape the holiday crowds.
The beach resort at Gerani or Kato Gerani is much less developed than its busy neighbour, Platanias, although there are a number of big hotels as well as small family apartments on this stretch of beach. Don't confuse it with Gerani beach resort, near Rethymnon.
The advantages are fewer crowds but all the nightlife offerings of Platanias are just a short walk away. Gerani extends from the Platanias bridge to the village of Pirgos Psilonerou. Although Gerani is rather quieter than its neighbour it does tend to lack atmosphere.
Gerani has a long pebble beach - it is just basically an extension of Platanias - and again, the beach is much less crowded. There are plenty of beach facilities - sunbeds , showers, watersports and so on. There are also regular buses to Chania.
Away from the main coast road there are several interesting inland villages in the area that are worth a trip. The villages of Pano Gerani (as distinct from Kato Gerani beach resort), Modi, Loutraki and Manoliopoulo are all good examples of traditional Cretan villages and all are within easy driving distance.
The main road runs on from Platanias to MALEME in a virtually unbroken chain of hotels, apartments, tavernas and snack bars that makes it difficult to judge when one resort starts and another ends.
Maleme is basically the rough end of Platanias beach with banks of stone and shingle running down to an unkempt and rather dreary looking shoreline. The flat plain behind doesn't add to the ambience.
Swathes of scrub cover the flat and barren strip between the beach and the hills behind. Near the shore is a fairly indifferent shelf of shingle and sand, quite exposed and with little shade. Holidays here are mostly hotel pool and bar-based.
There's a good range of watersports, a few tavernas in the village itself and a couple of bars at the western end. Everything else is basically hotel based with lots of sports facilities and all-inclusive hotel programmes of activities and entertainment.
Kolymbari is a small fishing port west of Maleme on the way to Katselli Kissamos. Kolymbari, also called Kolimbari, Kolibari and Kolimpari on road maps,is set at the base of the Rodopou peninsula and still relatively free of mass tourism, although a number of tour operators now promote the resort.
Kolymbari has a long pebble beach, artificially imporoved with a few lorry loads of sand, and a pleasant seafront promenade lined with tavernas, shops and waterfront cafes. There were six seafront tavernas on the edge of the beach at the last count and three more nearby.
There is a small and pretty harbour, recently extended and with a couple of cafes and a taverna. There are a several small hotels in the village as well as a number of new apartment units built closer to the beach.
The fortified monastery of Monastery of Panaghia Odigitria, better known as Moni Gonias, is often visited. Dating from the 13th century, the present buildings date from 1618-1634 and are in use and well maintained. It has a good collection of Byzantine icons and other religious relics. Visitors are welcome at normal opening hours.
There are regular boat trips from Kolymbari to the east coast of Rodopou where there are ruins of the ancient town Dyktinna, the island of Gramvousa and the beach at Balos.
A mountain road leads out of Kolymbari up to the Rodopos peninusula where the village of Afrata, about 4km up a steeply winding road is the gateway to the mountainous area. Hikers often head out from here or from Rodopos village. Roads beyond here are for four-wheel drives.
Confusion with several other Kastelli's on Crete has led to this fishing village being variously called KASTELLI, KISSAMOS or both and this one lies about 42km west of Chania.
The resort sits in the end of a very deep bay, and though road links are good, it is far enough west to be well off the main tourist trail. Not that there is anything special to go there for. Kastelli Kissamos has a dull, grey, worn out air with a non-descript, but long, pebble and sand beach that is relieved somewhat by several good tavernas.
Local excavations have unearthed a very fine 2nd century floor mosaic and there is a reasonable archaeology museum. About 8km inland is the old village of POLYRENIA, just about a quaint a Cretan village as you will find and with a history that pre-dates the Romans.
Historically, Kastelli Kissamos was another area of fierce fighting in the Battle of Crete, when unarmed islanders took on the Nazi paratroopers. Their use of pitchforks and knives on the enemy led to savage reprisals by the Germans, including the shooting of 200 randomly chosen Cretan after German soldiers were allegedly mutilated.
The far west coast of Crete provides some of the most remote, dramatic, some say the finest, beaches in the whole of Crete. Many are spectacular indeed, the subject of many of the island's postcards, and a drive down the dramatic coastline itself makes a visit worthwhile. But facilities here are few and far between and many prefer to take one of the many day coach trip offers from tour firms and boat owners.
Far off the beaten track, this striking spike of islands at GRAMVOUSA - once the haunt of pirates - is now a favourite target for day-tripping boats.
Spectacular sand bars and shallow waters stretch out to the islet from BALOS beach where there sits the ruins of a large Venetian fortress. The castle was built in 1582 but destroyed six years later when lightning set off a gunpowder store. It was rebuilt in 1630 and garrisoned by English and French soldiers in 1828. Today only ruins remain.
Wild and uninhabited, Balos beach is best visited by boat as there are no facilities and no roads worthy of the name. Its sheer beauty attracts visitors in some numbers although they must now pay to see it as local authorities in Kissamos have imposed a one euro charge to cover beach maintenance costs. It is possible to walk out to the island across the sandbanks on quiet days, though this should never be attempted when the wind is up.
To the west of Kastelli lies some of the finest, coastline in Crete. The tracks down from the main road to FALASARNA certainly provide wonderful views of wrinkled rocks, clear blue sea, white sand and, unfortunately, row upon row of green plastic greenhouses, this being tomato and cucumber growing country.
There are several wide sandy coves but the main Falasarna beach is at northern end of the bay. It is a long and attractive stretch of golden sand with rocks and rock pools in the middle to add interest.
On cliffs above Falasarna beach are some basic tavernas and a scattering of apartments. Wooden steps lead from one of the tavernas down to the beach where there are sunbeds lined along the shore. The sea is quite shallow with sand underfoot and some of the rock pools are quite large, so Falasarna is a good beach to take the family.
Beautiful Falasarna beach may be but the waters here are very cold and the tide sometimes carries in tar and other debris from passing ships, though it is not really a nuisance. Behind are cliffs at the northern end and, in the middle, large scrub covered dunes.
Its beauty also attracts many boat trippers so Falasarna is not always as tranquil as the postcards suggest. There are some archaeological ruins here but they are widely scattered and difficult to find.
The tiny uninhabited islet of ELAFONISI looks like a desert island paradise but it's cursed with a relentless influx of daily coaches and visiting boats.
Elafonisi is a magical place - if you can avoid the crowds. You can wade out to the islet along a shallow reef through a sun-warmed waters that rarely reach more than a metre in depth.
Many visiting by road pass through the impressive Topolia Gorge on the way and the neighbouring mountain villages of Topolia, Elos, Kefali and Vathi are all worth a stop.
The Elafonisi beach is flat white sand and the shallow waters have a pink hue thanks to the protected coral reefs that grow here. The coast along here is littered with coves, bays and rock pool. Walk about 50m north to the islet for secluded sunbathing among nudists. There are a couple of beach cantinas that open in the summer.
The Elafonisi area is rich in rare plants and animals, including protected frogs, lizards and snakes. The Elafonisi beaches are also breeding grounds for sea turtles and it's the last European stop for flocks of birds migrating to Africa.
Much of Crete's south coast is composed of sheer cliffs that plunge sharply into the sea from the Lefkas Ori mountains above. But, the beaches that are found here are some of the best in Crete and they enjoy some of the best weather too, facing south and well protected by the mountains behind. Resorts tend to be more relaxed than in the north and visitor numbers much smaller. The weather is so mild here that resorts such as Paleochora stay open all winter.
Built across the base of a peninsula, the village of PALEOCHORA, about 73km from Chania and 133km from Rethymnon, has the harbour on one side and a long, sandy beach on the other with ancient Venetian ramparts towering above.
Tourism has made its mark and Paleochora is now well developed as a resort but it is still enjoyable - busy rather than crowded, with taverna tables spilling out onto the main street. Many cafes are found around the port and a small pebble beach that lies to the east of Paleochora.
The Venetian fortress on the tip of the peninsula was destroyed by the pirate Barbarossa in 1539 but subsequently restored and it is now open to the public.
The bigger Paleochora beach lies to the west and is much larger and much sandier than the smaller one. Although exposed along the shoreline ,there are plenty of sunbeds and stands of tamarisk at the back of Paleochora beach help to give plenty of natural shade.
The further west you go the quieter Paleochora gets with noise and most of the nuisance confined to the 'town' end of the beach. There are some even more sheltered coves to the west but ugly polythene tunnels can blight the view and keep them off the tourist postcards.
Boats sail from Paleochora to Gavdos island, the most southern part of Europe and, being so far south itself with only the Libyan Sea between here and Africa, Paleochora is one of the few Greek resorts that will stay open to tourists all winter.
The beach at SOUGIA on the south coast seems to be scoured out of the sheer cliffs behind. The road drops steeply down the mountain through the attractive hill villages of Agriles and Moni, then along the river bed to the small bay.
Sougia has a long and steeply banked pebble beach that dips sharply into the sea. It is backed by rocky cliffs and a clutch of modern cement buildings that do little to enhance the views. The exception is the delightful church that has a Byzantine mosaic dating from the 6th century.
Hills rise dramatically at each end and there are sunbeds and a small beachfront taverna to supply the basics. Sougia is a derivative of 'Pig Village', so named because of the pigs that were once reared in the oak woods behind and not an unflattering reference to the nudists who very much favour this remote beach resort.
Arrivals by road are supplemented by daily caiques from Paleochora and those that prefer an even quieter spot can take the boat to LASSOS or follow the cliff path west for about 90 min, renowned as a healing centre in ancient times and where there are now just the relics of bathhouses built over mineral springs.
This is the gateway port for walkers heading into and out of the hugely popular Samaria Gorge which runs north into Lefka Ori and up to the Omalos Plain.
AGIA ROUMELI was spawned by dozens of concrete mixers in the 1960s when the original inland village was washed away by flash floods.
Today Agia Roumeli is little more than a staging post for exhausted walkers as they trickle out of the gorge or the village gets a passing glance from boat arrivals heading into the gorge 2km to the north. The latter visitors are usually on one of the short gorge walking trips that are heavily advertised in Chania and Rethymnon.
The passing traffic in both directions at Agia Roumeli provides an unmissable opportunity for cafe owners to gorge on a steady supply of weary walkers. There are also plenty of rooms here but prices tend to be as steep as the walk up the gorge.
There is a beach of sorts at Agia Roumeli, a long, thin strip of pebble and shingle that drops very steeply into the sea. Sunbed umbrellas offer the only shade on this very exposed spot.
LOUTRO is tittle more than a stopping place for those boats passing from Hora Sfakia in the east to Agia Roumeli and the Samaria Gorge in the west. There is no road access and all visitors arrive on daily boats.
Loutro village is perched in a horseshoe bay and overshadowed by looming cliffs. Loutro suffers from the lack of a decent beach - it is just a small and exposed strip of pebble and shingle west of the harbour. There are some deserted coves nearby if you are prepared to look for them.
Touted so often as the ideal out-of-the-way resort Loutro now gets rather too crowded for its own good. A bank of tavernas line the shore near the Loutro harbour ready to net any passing trade.
About 3-4km west of Chora Sfakia is the remote and beautiful beach of GLYKA NERA, also known as Sweetwater or Freshwater. It is a beach of white pebbles with very clear and fresh water that bubbles out of the ground from nearby springs.
It is a remote spot but a small beach cantina opens in the summer with basic food and drink and there are sunbeds and umbrellas for protection. There is little in the way of natural shade.
The beach is popular with nudists and most arrive on boats that advertise the daily trip to 'Sweetwater'. There is a coastal footpath from Chora Sfakia that takes 30-40 minutes to walk and a much more difficult path from Loutro, in the west, that takes about 60mins. Boats leave Chora Sfakia at about 10am and return for pick-ups at about 4.30pm.
If you fancy a glimpse of old Cretan culture, away from mass tourism, the the hillside village of ANOPOLI , set in the mountains behind Loutro and Glyka is the place to head for. Anopolis is a small village of about 350 inhabitants on a small, fertile plateau at the foot of the White Mountains.
The 12km road that snakes west to Anopolis from Hora Sfakion has been asphalted and a bus leaves about4.pm and return to Hora Sfakion at 6.30am next day or you can get a taxi. There are rooms for rent in the village which has a simle taverna in the shady square.
Expect breathtaking scenery and several good hiking trails. It's a 90 minute walk to Loutro beach and there is a mountain trail to Pahnes, atop Lefka Ori mountains, where 47 mountain tops are visible. About 2 km west of Anopolis is the abandoned village of Aradena and it's a 30 minute walk to the 138m-deep Aradaina gorge. Read more on Anapoli village.
The hair-raising decent from Imbros to this jumping off port to the Samaria Gorge is not for the those without a clear head for heights. The precipitous drive down the steep zigzag road is made worse by notoriously reckless local drivers and a steady stream of tour coaches.
This is the Sfakia region, noted in the past for banditry. It was said that no Sfakian ever left home without a gun in his belt. Today, battered roadside signs are obviously used for target practice on a regular basis.
Hemmed in by mountains, the seaside village of CHORA SFAKIA, HORA SFAKIA or CHORA SFAKION, about 74km from Chania and 68km from Rethymnon, gets little more than a sideways glance from visitors as they troop down from the large and expensive car park to the newly built harbour to catch the ferry to the Samaria Gorge.
Actually Chora Sfakia is probably not worth much more than a glance, being little more than a row of expensive cafes and souvenir shops lining the narrow streets that leads west from the small harbour.
Chora Sfakia village has a savage history that belies it modern meek appearance. Locals were considered little more than brigands and bandits for centuries and families were embroiled in a bitter and bloody feud for nearly 100 years. The independent tradition was revived in World War II when Chora Sfakia locals helped evacuate retreating Allied troops before the Germans could arrive, an action for which many paid dearly.
A monument on the Chora Sfakia jetty commemorates the mass evacuation while a memorial above the village honours the local men, women and children who were summarily executed by the occupying Germans for helping the Allies.
There is a small pebble beach around the headland to the west of Chora Sfakia with a beach cantina and sunbeds. Also nearby is a long pebble beach at VRITOMARTIS where there is Crete's only licensed naturist resort and hotel.
A wide flat plain lies beneath the mountains and the sea from Chora Sfakia to Plakas. Behind a long flat beach stands the castle of FRANGOKASTELLO, a severe rectangle of brown and orange stone.
The Frangokastello castle, imposing from the outside, is little more than a shell inside and a full tour will take no more than a few minutes.
Frangokastello beach lies in front of and beneath the castle, a fine stretch of gently shelving white sand with a few rocky outcrops at one end and a sheltered boat bay at the other. The sea here stays very shallow for a good 100m offshore.
A few sunbeds are scattered about around a beach taverna that lies beneath the castle and there is plenty of natural shade from stands of tamarisks than run the length of Frangokastello beach.
Except for the beach taverna and a few scattered apartments there is little else to be found here and Frangokastello makes for a tranquil spot, with the added bonus of a towering backdrop of blue grey mountains.
The former fishing village at PLAKIAS, 92km from Chania and 36km from Rethymnon, has undergone a bit of a tourist boom with apartments scattered somewhat meaninglessly about the wide coastal plain. Despite the influx the resort has kept its head and is remains low key.
There are plenty of restaurants and bars and a sprinkling of shops. A couple of discos have opened as the popularity of Plakias has risen. It's main attraction is the large, curving bay with a 1km beach of sand and pebble, backed by shoreline tavernas.
The Plakias beach is mainly pebble nearest the resort but it gets much sandier as you head east with snorkeling popular in the shallow waters beneath the cliffs. There are showers and sunbeds for visitors but Plakias beach rarely gets very crowded.
To the east are beaches at PALIGREMOS and further still DAMNONI, now quite a popular tourist resort in its own right. About 2km to the west is another small sandy beach called SOUDA BAY, noted for its palm trees, and before that a small cove at GAVDOLIMAN
Plakias town may lack the charm of its neighbours but it has all the facilities and the long uncrowded beach more than easily makes up for any of the drawbacks.
It is picture postcard stuff at the beach of PREVELI thanks to a spectacular lagoon that lies between the end of a steep gorge and the sea. A long spit of shingle provides room for sun loungers while the lagoon is ideal for swimming and for boating.
Unfortunately a fire in August 2010 destroyed most of the rare Cretan palm trees that populated the gorge but hopes are high that the fire-ravaged palms will make a good recovery.
Dirt tracks that traced their way back through the once lush vegetation offered inviting walks along the near-tropical river banks but now the area has been burnt bare.
Access to Preveli beach is difficult. and not suitable for those with mobility problems There are many steep steps from the car park directly above or it is a long trek down the narrow gorge to the seashore. Many arrive at Prveli beach by boat
On Preveli beach the sand is sharp and shelves gently into the sea. A small cantina offers the basics but the popularity of the beach and the captive audience has pushed up prices
A picturesque setting and tight village layout make AGIA GALINI, 114km from Chania and 54km from Rethymnon, the pick of the popular package holiday companies with the place jammed solid throughout the summer.
The taverna-lined harbour provides focus. The narrow pedestrian streets that climb up the hill are thick with cafes and souvenir shops. Building has been so rife it can look like a Third World ghetto. Though obviously tourist-centred, Agia Galini has not sacrificed all of its charm. However the predominance of English signs in a Greek resort can be depressing.
Tavernas are thick on the ground at Agia Galini and meals are generally good. It is a long walk to the beaches which lie around the headland to the east. The first beach at Agia Galini is small and, although very pleasant, is often crammed to capacity. There is a longer stretch of coarse sand beyond it to the east.
Further east of Agia Galini the coastal plain is generally regarded as the ugliest area of Western Crete, with land hidden under acres of polythene greenhouses and a horrible concrete sprawl of agricultural buildings given over to almost industrial growing of tomatoes and cucumbers.